Q&A with Charlotte Blake Alston

By Larry Levin, Special to the Jewish Light

You performed the “Kaddish Symphony” with the Philadelphia Orchestra earlier this year. The narrator wrestles with such powerful and intimate thoughts and feelings about God and faith during the piece. How did your understanding of the narrator evolve from when you began preparing through the time of your performance?

When I first read the text, what jumped out at me were the emotions of anger and rage. The narrator rails at God with a kind of fist-shaking, finger-pointing fury. To me, much of the sensibilities of the text, its language, pushed the limits of blasphemy. Certainly, among my own thoughts was the personal question: “Do I really want to stand on a stage in front of thousands of people and have words of blasphemy come out of my mouth – Bernstein or no Bernstein!?”  


I read the text several times, then shifted my focus to the primary word in the symphony’s title: Kaddish. I am not a practitioner of Judaism so while I was aware of the Mourners’ Prayer I was unfamiliar with the actual language of the prayer. I began engaging in conversations with Jewish friends and colleagues. My first question: “Are anger and rage ever components or sentiments of the Kaddish prayer?” The answer was ‘no’. Those extended conversations really helped me to think differently about the text and about Bernstein’s internal conflicts framed by what was happening in our country and in the world in the mid-1960’s – including the assassination of John F. Kennedy — into a broader and deeper perspective.  


Certainly every audience member will have their own perspectives on the narrator’s struggle, based in part on their personal experiences with faith and spirituality. Did your own personal experiences with faith and spirituality inform your performance, and if so, how?

Yes. I grew up in the Baptist denomination – Black Baptist, I must add – of the Christian faith. Part of my conversations in preparation for this narration included comparisons of the ways these two traditions with the same root, diverge — both culturally and theologically. I was taught from childhood, that we are not to question God. We are not to question His Power, Omniscience or Divine Authority. 



In Jewish tradition, questioning is about connection to, not conflict with, God. There are examples throughout the Old Testament of those who struggled with and questioned  – some with great exasperation: Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Job, even the Psalmists. After Jacob’s struggle, his name was changed to Israel (Wrestles With God). I hear echoes of that questioning, that language, that emotion in Martin Luther King’s “How Long?” sermon. My understanding of the sensibilities and emotional conflicts of the text began to change.


Your performance of the Bernstein in Philadelphia was part of a program that included other religious music, in that instance Rossini’s “Stabat Mater.” How do you think music and the arts can offer a different way for people to process and connect on sensitive issues like faith and religion?

As has been attested to so many times throughout the existence of humankind, I believe the varied manifestations of innate human creativity we call ‘The Arts’ is the language of the heart, the Spirit, the Soul. Human creativity – visual arts, music, the sound of the human voice, the form and expressive physicality of the human body (dance), words thoughtfully crafted and the power of combined artistic disciplines has the power to cut through our man-made barriers of class, social status, ethnic or religious divisions. In the end, we all question at some point or another in our lives, whether we acknowledge it or not. Why me? Why are suffering and victimization allowed to continue without God’s interventions? Why does evil prosper? Artistic forms of expression can serve to bring those questions to the forefront of our hearts; to trigger a strong desire for post-performance conversations. I have my own thoughts about the answers. What are yours?